Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Beauty of Order from Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday

What is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.

This passage, from G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, rubs its proverbial elbows with other equally distinguished bits of wisdom within that text. In this novel, which is one of my favorites, Chesterton attacks what he described as the, “logic, or lunacy” of the popular opinion that “the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf” in an article he wrote for the Illustrated London News in 1936. I will not attempt to summarize the plot, but I do encourage you to read the book or at least find a summary online.

I am refraining from a rehashing of the story because of its complexity and because, when taken out of context, it can seem rather fantastical. It comprises many themes--anarchy is just one in this book, which is rife with metaphor, beautiful logic, and subtle theology—in fact, the themes in the novel could provide fodder for a frenzy of blogs (and it just might!). The novel begins with a meeting of “The Two Poets of Saffron Park” (which is the title of the first chapter). The two wordsmiths argue about the place of anarchy in poetry; the resident poet, Lucian Gregory, claims that chaos and rebellion are poetic in themselves and that “an artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only.” The second poet, Gabriel Syme (our hero!), counters that there is nothing poetic about anarchy; rather, “chaos is dull…it is things going right that is poetical.” (Note the symbolism of the names—Lucian/Lucifer, Gabriel/…Gabriel—the first poet expresses the twisted views of a fallen light-bearer, whereas the second proclaims truth.)

Another notable passage from Gabriel defends his position by describing his passion for, of all unlikely things, a train reaching its destination.

I tell you…that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloan Square on must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam.

This quote exemplifies one of the notable notions in this book: Gabriel’s idea of the romance of order. Attributing high adventure and mystery to the order that Lucian views as prosaic is one of our greatest tools as Catholics. We see the romance of a life devoted to fully utilizing our freedom to live well according to the qualities of dignified and fully realized human persons—the only true freedom we can have. We are free to be as wonderful as the Lord meant us to be and can see the beauty and romance of this. As Chesterton wrote in another great work, Orthodoxy, “The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say, "if you please" to the housemaid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery; but because of this his relations with the housemaid become of a sparkling and crystal clearness. He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health. As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed forever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

Our victory as sons and daughters of Adam is to embrace the power our free will gives us to act in accord with truth and goodness. To say that we are imposed upon because there are guidelines to living well is erroneous; we have all been told the most valuable things are those we work for, and repetition has not made it false. We work to live up to certain standards, which only help direct our efforts. (Standards for beauty, for example, are even found in nature in the golden ratio, which has been found to describe the proportions of what is most pleasing to the human eye.)Most worthwhile things are done according to plans—buildings are built from blueprints, novels written (and rewritten) from outlines, paintings result from countless sketches…so embrace order and truth! To use a slightly corny metaphor, we are given the blueprints for living to our highest potential as human beings and will remain standing for eternity if we fashion ourselves according to them! [I apologize for the corniness!]

1 comment:

Angela Miceli said...

Great article!! Also, you can get a free audio book for your ipod of this book and other Chesterton at www.librivox.org!!